In Saturday’s Champions League final, Barcelona will go up against the Italian Champions Juventus with hopes of continuing their recent domination and completing a historic treble season. With the way the Catalan club has performed over the last few months there is little doubt that they are the prohibitive favorites in Berlin.
The reasons behind Barcelona’s recent scorching form remains unclear but there are a myriad of theories that seek to understand how the club went from the brink of disaster- when Messi had it out with Enrique, the club’s performances were lackluster, and the board was actively trying to replace Enrique- to the verge of legendary status.
The theories cover all aspects of the club from Xavi and other elder players talking to Enrique and telling him to simmer down a bit, to Enrique’s demand for intensity and his excellent assistant coaches, to the players staring at the cliff of another disappointing season and realizing they had to change or die. To be fair, all these explanations probably have made some difference in Barcelona’s turn around but there is one idea that has not been discussed much and could be the real reason why Barcelona are 90 minutes from the ultimate glory. Simply put, Luis Enrique let his players off the leash and just let them play the football they know best. It seems elementary, yes, but when you look at what the club has been though these past few years and what has happened since January, it does not seem too far fetched.
Pep Guardiola was a perfectionist and control freak that used organization and perfection to create a historic squad. He left because he knew that his demand for absolute precision was starting to wear the players thin and because of that the performances were suffering. Tito tried to change things a bit but his illness forced him to walk away and Jordi Roura was always in over his head. That season the players were trapped between systems, emotions, and ideas. They won the league but never settled on a new approach to the game. Next came Tata, and well, no one knows what he was trying to do, especially himself so in the end, it was another lost year for the players.
Enrique came along this season to re-institute discipline and intensity but when it came to his tactics, he seemed too tied to changing Barcelona’s best attributes- possession and space. The midfield was being asked to do too much by having to cover too much space without controlling the ball to retain their shape. Then when Enrique decided to bench Messi and Neymar, a confrontation was had on the training pitch, and then the next thing anyone knew the club starting their slow march to domination*. Suddenly, the midfield had a bigger role, Iniesta returned to form with that goal, Xavi found his place as the pacifier late in games, and Messi, Neymar, and Suarez took their game to a level seldom seen in football today.
*It wasn’t a overnight change, remember Real Madrid really should have and could have won the second El Clasico
It is simple to believe that Enrique just pulled back a bit or that the players finally understood what Enrique wanted. But a closer look at the metamorphism of the club from January to now seems to show that Enrique just let his players do what they are capable of. He let them play the way they wanted and needed to so the team could start winning and dominating again. After so many years of strict organization to uncertainty to nothingness, the squad just wanted to play with joy again and win. By letting them just go out there and play, Enrique gave the players back their purpose and love of the game and not surprising the best club in the world over the last 15 years starting to look like just that- the best club in the world.
The first example of Enrique letting the squad of the leash is the blow up with Messi. After that, Barcelona started their turn around and Messi switched his position with Suarez- forfeiting the center role that turned him from one of the best in the game to maybe the best ever. Messi’s insistence on that center position is the stuff of legends. The most famous story being Messi demanding from Pep Guardiola that he be in the middle not Ibrahimovic- banishing Pep’s big signing to the outside and soon to outside the club. Knowing that, there is little chance Enrique would try to force Messi outside and in fact Luis Suarez has revealed that the switch was all Messi’s doing. All Lucho did was nothing; he let Messi do what the player thought was best for him and the club. Messi needed to win this year after Ronaldo’s back to back player of the year awards and a disappointing end to the World Cup and the best way for Messi and his team to win is to just let Messi be Messi. Do not try to control him or force him into doing something. Just give him the ball and let him win.
More to that, after that January loss, the midfield slowly started to resemble the Barcelona midfield that created copy cats around the world. Xavi still wasn’t a starter, but the ball did not always go straight from the back line to the front line. Rather that long ball strategy become more of a counter attack tactic and possession become king again- faster and more straightforward possession, but possession nevertheless. Additionally, Xavi became the equivalent of a baseball closer. He came in late in games with the sole strategy of slowing the game down and holding on to possession and taking only calculated risks. This allowed Barcelona to better defend late in games while also maintaining an offensive threat.
This strategy is completely different from what it seemed Enrique was trying to do from the jump. Now it is possible that Enrique adapted his approach but it more likely that players like Xavi, Pique, Iniesta, and Messi just started to play the way they wanted to play and knew they could be successful with. Case in point, Messi stated that since January “Everything has changed” while Enrique insists nothing has. Enrique is still the manager and in charge of the squad, but from observing the team throughout the year, it is clear that from January the players changed how they were playing and Lucho was wise enough to not yank on the leash.
In the end, it is clear the smartest thing Enrique has done this year is to demand intensity and just let his world-class team play the way they know how to play. He trusted that he had a squad of dedicated, motivated to win, and highly skilled footballers and just let them go out and win. With the intelligence and ability on the Catalan club, it is little surprise that letting them do what they do best, the club started to play their best. This type of strategy is not successful long-term but it is enough to win a treble and earn a spot in history.So it is good enough for Saturday.